We all do it, and often for perfectly innocent reasons. We tell people stuff they already know in a way they could find patronising and offensive. The most common innocent reason is just having learned something and being really excited about it. Given half a chance, kids and teens splain at adults. It’s good to affirm them by hearing them out and then gently letting them know that you knew. One day, they will tell you something you didn’t know and that will be exciting all round.
Sometimes we splain because we’re trying to do empathy or express that we know what it’s like, and we pitch it wrong. Sometimes in this case the splaining is in the ears of the listener, because we’re not splaining, we’re trying to tell them our truth about similar experiences. Maybe, because we’ve not previously found someone who might get what we’ve been through, we get over excited and don’t pick up on cues.
We may be someone who, due to hardware issues, can’t easily read the kind of social cues people give off when they are hearing something they know about.
This is why I won’t leap to the conclusion that I’m being splained to at the first round. I won’t default to the assumption that the other person is trying to patronise me and under-estimates my knowledge, experience and brain capacity. I wait and see what happens if I then get to say ‘yes, I know how this is.’ At that point, I might get a solidarity conversation. I might get a bit of back-pedalling, an apology or a change of direction – all of this tells me there was only the desire to share information, not to put me down. The person who ignores this and keeps splaining – then they could well be splaining for real, and I’m likely to be rude. But they could have learning difficulties or problems with social situations and I don’t want to give someone a hard time for things they have little control over.
Some of it, is about knowing how to have a conversation, and not everyone does. Rushing in with a big information dump can be a sign of social difficulty – nerves, inexperience, difficult dealing with people and the such. The more socially skilled person will ask a question to try and get a feel for what the other person knows, and will proceed slowly, so as not to look like an arse.
Splaining is definitely a thing, I’ve been on the wrong end of it. It is a thing men all too often do to women. It can be a thing adults do to younger humans. It can be a thing those who are ok do to those who are not ok – and mostly it’s about shutting the other person up, and making them feel so small and stupid that they go away. It’s about power, and it is a way of asserting social dominance.
However, like many expressions of a problem, it can be taken up and used against people who are vulnerable. It’s not a good idea to get angry with an excited child who has just splained something to you. If we’re to quick to hear splaining, we can miss that this is someone trying to express solidarity and shared experience. If they didn’t look disabled, or gay, or mixed race, and we assume we know what they are by looking… it can be unpleasant.
Calling something ‘splaining’ can be a way to shut down a conversation, derail it and humiliate the other party. If that’s the main aim, then it needs looking at. We won’t solve the real issues of condescending explanations and misplaced assumptions by letting everything that annoys us get labelled that way.